It was stormy night and the James River was choppy and treacherous. The Jamestown Settlement had recently been reconstructed for the 350th Anniversary of the first permanent settlement in the New World.
Replicas of the three ships that brought those venturesome settlers to these shores lay at anchor off the settlement shore line. They were named Discovery, Godspeed and The Susan Constant.
Not far away was the U.S.Army installation of Fort Eustis, home of the U.S.Army Transportation Corps. One of the commands on that base was the Fifth Terminal Command which was responsible for all water craft and amphibians at Eustis on the peninsula and Fort Story, located at Virginia Beach.
In 1957, there was a young Second Lieutenant, fresh out of college on his first tour of military duty, assigned to the Fifth Terminal Command, Office of Judge Advocate General. Normally he spent most days either in court as an Assistant Defense Counsel or traveling throughout the Tidewater area of Virginia as a Legal Investigative Officer.
However, like all officers in all commands every now and then his name would pop up on the duty roster to serve a 24 hour period as Officer of The Day or OD. That meant being on call for any emergency situation and conducting inspections, at four hour intervals, of all facilities areas under his command.
On the night in question everything was going along uneventfully except for the driving rain and wind which made the inspection tours somewhat less desirable than normal. Then everything changed.
Around 1 a.m. in came a call to Fifth Terminal Headquarters that The Susan Constant had broken loose from her mooring and was drifting down the James River. This rather expensive replica, if it smashed into something, which it surely would, was about to be transformed from tourist attraction to a practical settler’s item — firewood.
“Could the Army provide one of its craft to go out in the river and tow the ship back to the Settlement?” Since the OD is the Commanding Officer on duty the decision was up to the Second Lieutenant. “Of course we’d be happy to send a craft and retrieve this faux antique,” he told the pleading voice on the other end of the phone. He then set out to do just that.
There was only one problem. By law, at least at that time, no sea going vessel may be towed by another vessel without someone at the helm of the one in tow. This meant that the young Lieutenant would have to board The Susan Constant and man the helm while it was towed back to its dock area.
Steadying the wheel as the wooden ship was being towed by the military landing craft the young shave-tail Lieutenant, with rain hitting his face, thought to himself “Why on my shift? A couple of more hours and I’d have been home free.”
After the episode and once again back at base his two staff sergeants in the JAG office had decided on a new name — Lt. Smith, like in John and Pocahantas.
It even followed him into court as various trial officers asked, with a rye smile, “How are things going in the Settlement, John?”
Eventually, the ribbing wore off and it was back pleading cases. But, the memory of that adventure has held over the years.
Oh, by the way — that young Second Lieutenant out on the James River that rainy night steering a bit history back to its faux home was yours truly.